Remembrance of Things Past: Haugen’s Barbequed Chicken & Ribs

Certain things aren’t difficult to find in Toronto: falafel, injera bread, Jamaican patties, passive-agressive sarcasm.

Sometimes we forget how things once were. I found a dusty postcard in a convenience store in Oshawa once that showed the Toronto skyline, a cluster of dumpy little buildings dominated by the towering black International style menace of Phase 1 of the Mies Van der Rohe TD Centre. This postcard must have been printed in 1967 or later, but not much later. The city bears little physical resemblance to itself then, but perhaps even less psychological similarity. What passed for exotic food then was dumbed-down Italian, or distorted Chinese, maybe Hungarian after the influx of refugees post 1956. I’ve heard stories of people having to go to pharmacies to get olive oil, which probably means they just didn’t know where to shop.

When you went to a restaurant, it was for the purpose of food that might or might not taste a little better than what you got at home, but it probably wasn’t that different. The main attraction might have been the sense of occasion, the pleasure of choice, the possibility of better ingredients, the leisure of being served, and blessed relief from the chores of preparation, cooking and the relentless tide of cleaning up afterward. In 1967 at Haugen’s Restaurant near Port Perry, you could order some nice roast chicken with french fries or a baked potato, with a little coleslaw. You could have a milkshake if you wanted, and a piece of pie with a cup of coffee after.

You can still do exactly the same today, but here’s the bizarre thing: the experience feels not just quaint, but nearly foreign and exotic. In Toronto our immersion in and acceptance of the cuisines of other cultures is so complete that this sort of food now sticks out like a sore thumb, or at least a loveable anachronism. Of course, there are places in Toronto serving food that springs from these basic North American roots, but the point is that this “western” food has developed beyond all recognition: salads have moved beyond iceberg lettuce, molecular gastronomy has moved food in general into the realm of science fiction.

There is no danger of playful confusion, homage to anything, or irony in any form appearing on one’s plate at Haugen’s. Haugen’s does Barbequed Chicken and Ribs. Is that clear?

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The restaurant has existed in some form since 1953. The entire Genesis myth of the establishment is related on the cover of the menu, and on the website. It started off in Port Perry, then moved to the current site at Highway 7 and the Goodwood Road in 1955, then the original building was bulldozed in 1976 and the current massive space (350 seats!) opened shortly after that. Did you know that Haugen’s was featured on a show on the Food Network? No? Well, the large billboard outside, the menu, the website, and the placemats will remind you:

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But has the intense scrutiny of fame changed things at Haugen’s? Have they simply coasted on their reputation? No, they have not. For one thing, the dining room remains a touching tribute to 1983:

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With plenty of homey details that hint at the comforting and familiar experience to come:

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And if this sounds snarky or god forbid, passive-agressive, it isn’t. Because I respect Haugen’s, I really do: first of all, check out that root beer on our table. Stewart’s. Good root beer. Extra rooty with a lasting burn, the ideal companion to french fries. There’s attention to detail here, which is the only thing that can make food like this stand out in today’s crowded marketplace. There are so many innocent, harmless shortcuts that a business like this can make, like using frozen pre-cut french fries. No one is going to notice, right? Then the next thing to slide is the gravy: make it from concentrate, it’s almost as good. Next thing you know, it’s pre-fab Swiss Chalet…if you’re lucky as a restauranteur, if not a customer.

But Haugen’s realizes that the price of freedom from making zillions of dollars as a franchisor is eternal vigilance, and by the side of Highway 7 for some 60 years, they have continued to make everything themselves, the way they like it. It’s not that tweaks haven’t been made, innovations introduced: I think it said on the menu that they started making ribs in the mid-eighties. There are wraps on the menu, Ontario wine is available by the glass and they have a software-based order system. They’re not crazy, and they don’t maintain tradition for tradition’s sake, but they are also free of the unhealthy desire to change for the sake of change.

We started with a chocolate milkshake as an appetizer:

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There you go: that’s a proper shake. You got your squirt of whipped cream (real!), your formaldehyded marachino cherry, and the straw stands up straight and proud. It’s thick and made with lots of chocolate ice cream of a reasonable quality. There’s been no cheaping out with the milk.

We ordered the Chicken and Ribs Combo (with fries), the quarter Chicken dinner – white meat and coleslaw (with fries), and the chicken wrap sandwich (with fries). You can get a baked potato instead of fries, but why? We also ordered a side of gravy: house-made barbeque sauce is brought to the table as a matter of course. Service was friendly and professional: Haugen’s does its best to attract large crowds of classic car enthusiasts and bikers and from time to time, those 350 seats are full (of bikers). The waitstaff are seasoned veterans and managed the sparse Sunday afternoon 2:00pm clientele with casual ease. Even after I changed seats with one of my companions (to get better light for the pictures…and by the way, everyone in the place gave us their best WTF hostile-shackdwellers-from-Deliverance stares when I took pictures of all our food) our waitress had no difficulty putting the right plates in front of the right people.

The Chicken and Ribs Combo:
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The ribs were pork back ribs, very tender from a long, slow cooking and covered in the house sauce. They were good, but not seared-on-your-mind good. While eating them, my thoughts strayed to The Stockyards in Toronto and their outrageously tender smoked pork side ribs, with layer after layer of complex flavours coming from the meat, the smoke, the sauce. If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with: but these were pretty standard ribs. The fries were of the huge and chunky variety and I was afraid they might not be properly cooked in the middle, but my fears were unfounded and they had almost certainly been fried twice…the first time to actually cook the potato, the second time to bless the fry with a crunchy, golden coat of crispiness. No salt: you add your own. They were not the ideal fry texture (which I heard memorably described in Australia once as “deep fried paper bags filled with pus”) but they were still a very good fry and I ate more than I intended to.

The chicken dinner:

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was notable for both the chicken itself and the coleslaw. The chicken is described as “barbecued” but it’s actually rotisserie chicken. According to the website, they use “ancient” rotisserie ovens because the Babylonians did chicken right. Okay, I’m sure that’s not what they meant by ancient, but the chicken is not exactly “barbecued” and that’s just fine, because it’s great chicken. Beautiful colour on the skin, and the meat achieves the difficult balance between dryness/juiciness/being adequately cooked. It’s extremely simple and very good.

The side gravy was the real thing, because chicken drippings are not in short supply at Haugen’s and are put to good use. The house BBQ sauce is pronouncedly tomatoey — tomatoes and cayenne pepper are the two predominant flavours in this basic, perhaps too basic, product.

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For a Barbeque place, I thought that was weird: they should have a highly complicated sauce that everyone loves, no one can reverse engineer, and that they would sell in handsome bottles at the take-out counter. As for the coleslaw, it’s a classic composition made of green cabbage, a little carrot with a creamy white dressing. It’s perfect – not too runny, not too fussy with extra flavours like mustard seeds, fresh and good.

And the wrap:

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Generous chunks of the great chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, grated orange cheddar cheese, and a housemade creamy dressing with fresh dill in it. Lots and lots of dill, which was unusual and I thought it tasted really good even though I have a love/hate relationship with dill. The wrap itself was soft and pliant.

For dessert, the only choice was pie. Well, it wasn’t the only choice: I think they had ice cream. But realistically, when a restaurant goes on at length about the majesty and perfection of its house-made pies, and lists all of those pies on a little plastic stand-up sign on the table, there is only one response to such hubris: we had to order a piece of the coconut cream pie and deliver Judgement. Because, Dear Reader, in spite of my tender years, I make a good pie. I learned at the feet of a bitter and angry woman who poured all of her sensitivity and thwarted love into the most god-damned amazing pastry crusts the world has ever seen. Am I a little picky about pie? Well, maybe just a little.

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It was a pretty good pie. The crust, as promised, had not been commercially made but lacked flakiness. I can understand this in part because with custard pies, the moisture from the filling soaks into the crust fairly quickly so you might need to use a crust with more of a solid, doughy texture. Or you can follow the advice of The Joy Of Cooking, which advises that you make a “slipped” custard pie by baking the crust and the filling separately in two different pie plates…and then immediately before serving, “slip” the custard into the crust before garnishing with whipped cream. Clearly, this is impractical for a large restaurant: but I can say from experience (i.e. Scaramouche) that some of the more obsessive restaurants have cracked this problem. The filling was very good: no hint of jello, this was proper, baked custard with an even coconut taste. Nicely browned dessicated coconut was sprinkled on top of the real whipped cream on top of the custard. Whatever failings the crust might have had, this pie was defenceless before our three forks and was gone in 60 seconds.

Coffee with your pie? Yes, please.

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It was just normal coffee, but I took a picture because it reminded me so much of The Big Lebowski. However, it was very fresh and you could tell they had ground their own beans. Note the insignia of Haugen’s on the saucer:

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This detail is actually from one of the lunch plates: there was no chicken grease on the coffee saucer. Anyway, it’s a cute touch: you definitely know where you are at all times. Haugen’s has no identity crisis and I can see how (and why) people continue to go back there decade after decade. Nostalgia is a powerful, powerful thing and in a place like this, remembering the past is effortless because it’s all around you, and even better, you’re remembering one of the easiest and least representative parts of the past: the times when your family was eating good food that they enjoyed together.

One thing I noticed when I moved to Ontario from the West some 15 years ago was the incredible amount of (misplaced, in my view) affection people my age had for Swiss Chalet. It wasn’t part of my childhood, so I could see it for what it was, a competent but basic and pretty mediocre chicken restaurant. What Swiss Chalet represents is really a faint echo of any number of little places like Haugen’s that used to be all over Ontario and Quebec…to call it a mockery would be a little harsh, but what Swiss Chalet tried to do was take a cozy and genuine experience, reduce it to a formula, and then stamp it out in identical format all across the country. When it came to Alberta, it didn’t mean anything and nobody loved it even though they ate there sometimes. In Ontario, people love it without even knowing what Swiss Chalet is trying to be. And that would be Haugen’s.

Do you see this out the window when you eat at Swiss Chalet?

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I didn’t think so. Come back to the past. It tastes good here.

Haugen’s Barbequed Chicken & Ribs, 13801 Highway 7/12, near Port Perry, ON http://www.haugens.com
$70.00 for three including tax, tip, pie, coffee, milkshakes and rootbeer.

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2 responses to “Remembrance of Things Past: Haugen’s Barbequed Chicken & Ribs

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